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China, Russia and Central Asia ‘great game’

Courtesy of The Times of Central Asia

Category: Politics, Analyses & Opinions

Published on Thursday, 04 December 2014

Written by Giorgio Fiacconi

by Emanuele G. - Friday 5 December 2014 - 2011 letture

BISHKEK (TCA) — Russia’s proposed Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and China’s Silk Road Economic Belt are in some way two sides of the same coin, where the objective of the contender is certainly Central Asia. The two super powers have two different visions, means and objectives, but both of them intend to reshape Central Asia politics and allegiance, and in both cases will demand a certain level of political commitment that is going to influence the future of the region.

Whoever is going to prevail, Central Asia’s present situation will change to return to something similar to the former Soviet bloc, with Russia increasing its diplomatic and security influence and expanding its military presence, but probably with a reduced amount of investment, preventing China from further expansion.

China would respond by further expanding its influence and sooner or later absorbing the EEU or creating a significant exit from Central Asian members, being forced to take political and security commitments.

China is already injecting large amounts of money in the region and is on its way to increase considerably such financing with several initiatives and financial vehicles amounting to tens of billions of dollars that are extremely attractive to all Central Asia states.

At the end it is clear that the Silk Road Economic Belt may really become a closed belt around Central Asia and many other countries with the capacity to absorb the Eurasian Economic Union, bringing benefits not only to Central Asia but also to Russia, and this will be done unless political commitment blocks the process.

Central Asian leaderships well understand that the Russian project is politically motivated and will develop a protectionist structure with little or no investment from the big brother. While the Chinese project brings in a considerable amount of money and projects badly needed to revitalize and expand local economies and reduce unemployment and consequently create the much-needed stability.

Today’s Customs Union that should develop into the Eurasian Economic Union is in actual fact a very small reality joining together only three countries of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, and is in strong need to expand with additional members inside and outside Central Asia. Russia’s urgent interest is to create a bloc of different countries irrespective if such countries will benefit from the new grouping or not.

Even today The Customs Union has a very little impact on the overall economic development. While Turkmenistan is out and Uzbekistan is clearly not interested in joining the EEU, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have a soft approach since they see that their economic future is very much tied to external investment and China trade, the issues that Russia will not be able to satisfy. For Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in the medium and long term the participation in the EEU is clearly a disadvantage and although both countries draw a large amount of money from the remittances of their migrants in Russia, they are also aware that Russia needs such migrants and any restrictions it may impose will not influence too much the present amount of money received.

Kazakhstan is a member of the Customs Union but it certainly does not need such membership and is moving in its export and international agreements toward diversification that involves both Europe and China. In the end, although Russia will speed up the creation of the EEU by using its present political leverage on various countries, the EEU will remain an empty structure that will not be able to function properly and China with its money and newly acquired influence will prevail in Central Asia to make it the backyard of a new master.

The Silk Road Belt Initiative remains an ideal solution to many economic and development problems of Central Asia, including unemployment. The promised incredible amount of financial means that China will provide for creating infrastructure, developing economic possibilities and trade can not be ignored or underestimated by any side. All this in the end will demand political commitment from the region, probably without realizing that such commitments will in turn generate certain responsibilities from the Chinese side.

There is a strong possibility that the present Silk Road Economic Belt initiative will develop in the near future into a more comprehensive project that in addition to infrastructure and finance aimed at developing trade and keeping Russia at bay, may consider other strategically important decisions connected with security, terrorism, drug trade, and specific political agreements in such areas. This would determine a new scenario where money and political will would certainly jeopardize Putin’s grand project of the EEU.

With the above in mind, Russia needs to be fast in creating the new structure, offering to small countries such as Kyrgyzstan extensive benefits and financial support that in the end will never be comparable to what China is prepared to do. But Russia should also keep in mind that nothing is permanent in Central Asia, and that the EEU may remain an empty box, or may see some significant exit by some of its member as it was the case with Uzbekistan that quit the military structure of the CSTO.

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